Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rarely-Heard Twentieth Century Music

The composer George Rochberg was in the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania back when I was teaching Computer Science there. To call him reclusive would be a polite understatement. I taught there for five years and never saw him once (and my building was across a parking lot from his). On the rare occasions when his name came up, even in the Music Building, there was often the connotation that he lurked in his office a bit like Fafner in his cave (at least in Siegfried), not to be roused by the faint of heart (even those with tenure). From this it also follows as a corollary that, over those five years, I never heard any of his music performed. Indeed, my first taste of his music only came last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Master Class conducted by violist Kim Kashkashian, where the first students to present offered the first movement of his viola sonata. Given Kashkashian's background, I was not surprised that she was familiar with the work; so this was an excellent opportunity for my personal listening experiences to break new ground. Ironically, this sonata was completed in 1979, which means that he may have been working on it while I was at Penn.

Had I known that Rochberg would be opening the program, I would have done well to approach the evening with a bit of background, such as this summary of his compositional approaches from Wikipedia:

After a period of experimentation with serialism, Rochberg abandoned it after 1963 when his son died, saying that serialism was empty of expressive emotion and was inadequate to express his grief and rage.[1] By the seventies he had become controversial for the use of tonal passages in his music. His use of tonality first became widely known through the String Quartet No. 3 (1972), which includes an entire set of variations that are in the style of late Beethoven. Another movement of the quartet contains passages reminiscent of the music of Gustav Mahler. This use of tonality caused critics to classify him as a neoromantic composer. He compared atonality to abstract art and tonality to concrete art and compared his artistic evolution with Philip Guston's, saying "the tension between concreteness and abstraction" is a fundamental issue for both of them (Rochberg, 1992).

Of the works composed early in his career, the Symphony No. 2 (1955-56) stands out as an accomplished serial composition by an American composer. Rochberg is perhaps best known for his String Quartets Nos. 3-6 (1972-78). Rochberg conceived Nos. 4-6 as a set and named them the "Concord Quartets" after the Concord String Quartet, which premiered and recorded the works. The String Quartet No. 6 includes a set of variations on the Pachelbel Canon in D.

A few of his works were musical collages of quotations from other composers. "Contra Mortem et Tempus", for example, contains passages from Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives.

Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, and 5, and the Violin Concerto were recorded in 2001–2002 by Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee and released on the Naxos label.

I am not sure I am comfortable attaching that adjective "neoromantic" to the viola sonata, even if the timing is right for it. I am also not sure that I would listen to the sonata in terms of a "tension between concreteness and abstraction." On the other hand the concept of tension itself was extremely important to Kashkashian, who spent much of her time on this piece dealing with how to create and manage a sense of physical tension that controls how the bow is drawn across the strings. Nevertheless, the Guston reference is probably appropriate, since familiar concrete objects first began to appear on Guston's canvases in the mid-Sixties; so the Guston of the late Seventies may very well have been on Rochberg's mind. For those with a sense of irony, Guston's portrait of Morton Feldman, "Friend – to M.F.," which appears on the cover of the collection of Feldman-related essays published by Beginner Press, was painted in 1978, a time when Feldman was practically black-listed by most of the established academic music departments (including the one at Penn). I suppose that Rochberg could have been a "closet admirer" of Feldman, just as I have suggested that Karlheinz Stockhausen was a "closet admirer" of Eric Dolphy (among others); but, on the basis of what I heard in this viola sonata, I doubt that Rochberg ever gave much (if any) thought to Feldman.

Indeed, I have to wonder to what extent Rochberg gave much thought to listening itself. There is clearly much to occupy the mind of the performers; this was evident even before Kashkashian started offering her own observations. However, I was left with the nagging suspicion that Rochberg may have cared about little more than the relationship between the violist and pianist and the notation staring at them from their parts. The very presence of listeners seemed supererogatory, if not irrelevant. This may, of course, all be a product of an imagination colored by past encounters with a cloud of mystery that was always surrounding the man; and, on the basis of what I heard last night, I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to hear this sonata performed in its entirety, even if the composer would have regarded me as an unwelcome intruder.

By way of comparison, Paul Hindemith's name is much more familiar, at least to those familiar with twentieth-century music. While he may not receive very much attention in the concert audience, many ballet audiences are likely to know at least one of his compositions, since it was set by George Balanchine for his ballet "The Four Temperaments." Hindemith had a particular interest in Gebrauchsmusik, which his Wikipedia entry translates as "Utility Music." This was music for all sorts of different collections of instruments, often written at a level suitable for amateurs. The second work prepared for Kashkashian was an excellent case in point, three movements from Hindemith's Opus 35, "Die Serenaden," which he called a "little cantata for voice, oboe, viola, and cello." I have to wonder whether or not Hindemith may have had at least a few thoughts for Johann Sebastian Bach in this piece, since Bach's cantatas could be seen as the "primal spirit" of Gebrauchsmusik, with solo parts that tended to be written for the instrumentalists who happened to be available for a given Sunday service. The full plan for this cantata, taken from the Schott Music Web site, is as follows:

1. Barcarole (Adolf Licht)
An Phyllis (Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Gleim)
Toccata für Violoncello
Corrente für Sopran und Violoncello
Nur Mut (Ludwig Tieck)
2. Duett
Der Abend (Joseph von Eichendorff)
Der Wurm am Meer (Johann Wilhelm Meinhold)
3. Trio
Gute Nacht (Siegfried August Mahlmann)

The three songs performed for Kashkashian were "Nur Mut," "Der Wurm am Meer," and "Gute Nacht." Since the audience was not provided with the texts and I was unfamiliar with all of them, I am not sure what to make of the listening experience. I know that the viola and cello provided an interesting bit of tone painting of a sea serpent ("Wurm am Meer") slithering just below the surface of the water and occasionally (and always briefly) rearing its head; but, beyond that rather obvious depiction, I drew blanks. This is a piece that probably requires more homework than the Rochberg sonata, particularly since I think Hindemith had a bit more consideration for listeners, at least to the extent that he composed music through which performers could form a relationship with their listeners. At the very least this composition offered an interesting latter-day take on the nature of the cantata itself, which, in my book, is reason enough to learn more about it.

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